Did-The-Telco-Bell-Ring

What is WebRTC for Telcos?

Did the Telco bell ring?

Did-The-Telco-Bell-RingI often read statements from the “Internet advocates” or from vendors around Telco’s and their views/mistakes in relation to WebRTC, but barely any share experience from within.

I would like to share my thoughts on how the “democratization of voice” is seen by those who (still) earn a large portion of their annual revenues from it. What does it mean when various departments within an operator “want WebRTC” all of a sudden – what is “WebRTC for Telcos” – because sometimes, it is quite far from the obvious.

To follow up my last blog, let me share some first-hand thoughts how I perceive this (of course not only from within the company I work for, but also when I exchange thoughts with peers from various other operators). Some point out the believe the dial tone is still considered more important than actual web development or highlight that to some extent operators are bad for WebRTC. Parts of these arguments are often true. I asked myself: Why do operators most of the time start with telephony or consider IMS first when thinking about WebRTC?

Natural evolution vs the need for radical change

Well, why actually would they not start with it – that is after all the area they know and earn money from? Is it not natural that classical Telco people working day in/day out with SIP and deploying their brand new IMS consider using it for WebRTC as well (especially since IMS is mostly built for telephony)? I fully agree that we need a dramatic shift, but I wonder if anyone thought about how this can happen if not step by step, and how education inside the old structures can be done best in order to do so.

Change will not happen radically for everything, for everyone, for all our services, for our thinking, our culture – not just yet anyways. By doing a radical change in offering communications services, we can of course bet on the future already now, but which manager would risk revenues for the next years just to be the forerunner? Not to mention whether the people are ready (both from their knowledge and expectation perspective) to drive this change. I think it won’t happen overnight, it most likely cannot happen overnight, but that does not mean it is not happening at all.

Taking this into account: What is more natural than evolving your existing services and trying out new things when possible? An internal trial here and there perhaps, some laboratory deployments showcasing some of the functions the fancy new boxes have, but that are not used yet, or a student working on an innovative topic. As outlined by me before, it is easier than ever to try things out. Unfortunately that seems to happen mostly in the labs in a creative way and does not yet impact the thinking of the main organization unit dealing with (tele-) communication at the moment. This has to change!

How does the average Telco learn about WebRTC

Coming back to examining why it is that Telco’s seem to start always with classic click-to-dial use cases and are so keen on getting their IMS hooked up with WebRTC I asked myself: How did WebRTC actually “infiltrate” the average operator fellow’s mind set (of those looking at it at the moment – it is still far from being the majority within an operator) in the first place? Web 2.0 has not done that, neither have apps or Flash, or a move to IP in the core with NGN a while ago. What happened – why now?

At the moment I would say this has happened mostly through vendors. Our current technology vendors (mostly traditional ones that also provided technology decades back) come, present roadmaps, evolution of our currently running services, and also new boxes or features. These presentations are either given to technology and marketing together or separately. I can bet that certainly every single presentation of this kind contains WebRTC.

Here lies also one of the reasons for the Telco’s perception that IMS & WebRTC is closely related: Their first contact point is not Google, the larger Internet vision, or an excitement/drive for new things. They touch base with WebRTC mostly exclusively in relation to IMS and traditional services or the “classical” well-known suspects of “new” IMS services through their known partners.

It is not ignorance of alternatives to IMS or insistence towards SIP as signaling protocol, it is simply because many do not even know there is a need to think for alternatives. For the more conservative parts, using open-source software such as OpenSIPS/Kamilio for SIP in their core or thinking about IMS alternatives is already considered extravagant, and now those folks should question current approaches as a whole, even for their main services and change overnight? This is highly unlikely if you ask me.

Those who did not understand the transition yet and still believe in core legacy principles will most likely not change their view just because of WebRTC.

Operator services have not changed tremendously when the iPhone and apps came along.
Why should it happen now – just because of WebRTC?

Let’s assume people in charge of technology or products heard about WebRTC as described, think (in the context they have learned about it) about new possibilities, and come to ask one day to “add WebRTC to something”.

Now what does that mean?

  • They think about a service that should be accessible in browsers, e.g., an existing service such as “classic telephony”. Usually this means the request does not come along with any further requests. People don’t even think about “more” – new possibilities
  • They like the idea of adding voice or video to some website where this does currently not exist as a feature, but do not yet think about the potential that actually brings along
  • People operating new telephony platforms that evolved to IP will naturally hear about WebRTC, and since it is all IP the assumption of “just adding another end point” is rather obvious. Now they want also “the fixed line accessible with WebRTC”
  • Try out new “WebRTC capabilities” that have been part of a delivery (e.g. an SBC, media server, RCS platform) and simply explore what is now possible “on the web”

I have yet to meet somebody from an operator that till now requests any of the “real” WebRTC differentiators, such as contextual awareness, anonymity, or better codecs, and knows about that being worked on actively outside of some lab.

Chances: Enhance the existing & explore the new

So where do I see chances in the mid-term?

I tried to highlight that already in an earlier post: The Internet world will certainly teach us how to embed communications into the web and will do a much better job than us – despite our history with implementing real-time communication.

It is very crucial not to forget the value that can be delivered by evolving traditional services. New enhanced services are the ones mostly expected from an operator (by that I mean the evolution of services we currently offer) and also the ones where we can calm down controlling by keeping to some extend traditional less-risky operator business models. Maybe not per-minute pricing for the average consumer (but hey, they have flat rates anyways and just need to be properly identified), but for example “call center minutes” towards businesses can easily be charged even if the request is coming from a browser – at least for some time. And if existing traditional services are enhanced, maybe the current subscription will also not be cancelled just yet, even though alternatives arise. I do not suggest to keep this as long term strategy or that no change is needed; rather the opposite: Change is overdue, we’ve missed out before, let’s use our chances now and start with the easiest use cases immediately (it should be easy thanks to “All-IP” one might think).

Looking at embedding communications is also something I would try as an operator, but finding their real potential that will result in commitments of investing into it will take time I believe. I urge absolutely everyone to try gathering experiences in this area, but not to have too high expectations in the beginning. The cheering about the future value is unfortunately something that needs proven figures and an adaptation in the ”Telco mindset” to be fully understood. Motivations here are often cost savings or the simple unavailability of any budget for a new product idea (“Hey, we want video communication but have no budget – maybe we can use WebRTC”) rather than completely and thoroughly evaluated use cases. To follow up the call center use case – clearly the context can be exploited here and value can be added, but less with “pure end to end WebRTC” in the short term.

What is worth to mention is that I restricted some of my operator arguments by adding the apodosis “… unless it happens in their labs”. I believe that while WebRTC has its place in the labs, the new way of thinking has to make its way very, very quickly into the normal business units. I believe it is very important to gather experiences, not only for the development of so called new businesses, but even more importantly to reshape the existing business and adapt the new technology, new mindset step by step in as many areas as possible. This does in fact not even have to mean “do WebRTC” as understood by Google or anyone in the community. It simply means re-think current strategies how to best evolve legacy services and align with the new technologies and potentials that are available. We missed out on apps – let’s not miss out again!

Outlook and Conclusion

What are my expectations from the upcoming conference?

  • Share as many experiences from within as I can. Hopefully by then I can talk about some of our work as well.
  • See how other operators approach it. Learn about their experiences, less from technical perspective than from cultural, integration, coexistence of the old and new
  • Provide a balance between traditionalists/conservatives and the forerunners for whom change cannot come fast enough. I know where many concerns come from and am trying day in, day out to understand them and try to address them and clear them in a sensible way, and move forward – one step at a time J

Black-and-WhiteI summarized many points in this initial post that are worth a follow up, and I will try to highlight where I see the potential first and also tangle why some things just are not moving as fast as one would expect. My presentation will also highlight lessons learned so far (what is harder, what is easier) and look at where WebRTC – or rather the evolution of new paradigms that come along with it – can realistically be seen “at the average Telco” in the short term.

Remember: I believe the story is not black or white. For any shade of gray you want to draw, however, you need to understand and have both colors to do so and achieve the expected outcome.

2 replies
  1. Dean Bubley (@disruptivedean)
    Dean Bubley (@disruptivedean) says:

    Great article, and fits well with much of what I observe when I work with telcos on . However, I’d also say that as well as the labs group and the IMS/core telephony group, there are also various other units that have different attitudes to WebRTC. In particular, Digital Services, Enterprise and Developer Platform teams are often more open to new ideas, especially where they have less legacy revenue/infrastructure/behaviour & philsophy to protect. Many have also recruited people from the Web or apps world who are less polarised into a telco/standards mindset. This is one of the reasons why I suggest that telco execs don’t confine WebRTC (or other Internet/OTT-type) innovation just to the traditional groups, but encourage multiple units to work on it concurrently.

    Reply
    • Sebastian Schumann says:

      Thank you Dean.

      I definitely agree with you. The units you mention seem to be all “technical units”. If they exist in the operator/OpCo/group they should certainly all should look at it – ideally independently from their respective stand-points. I would go even further and add “general IT” to the ones you mentioned. They deal already with most of the non-RTC services (especially E-mail, web services, hosting, etc.). WebRTC empowers them to provide services or add features that were done by the NT folks before. IT also often has internal development (NT less so) and more “web/apps world people” than the NT side. Mostly, it may as well be as close as you can get to “Digital Services, Enterprise and Developer Platform teams” (not all Telco’s have these in-house or the luxury of them being a separate group).

      Extending your thoughts, I would certainly also include non-technical people here, especially product responsible ones. I would impose the “restriction” that it is not WebRTC as a technology they should look at in all cases, but certainly the paradigms that come with it. If I am responsible for telephony, E-mail, music streaming, IPTV today, what will my responsibilities look like tomorrow? How do they evolve?

      It is important to understand in my opinion – especially with Telco background – that they should not look for new voice/video services only, but especially how the existing services will evolve with voice/video capabilities and also how the existing services are re-defined by the web/app development in general, if they were built prior it (telephony as classic sample, but that can easily be applied to other services, too).

      Sebastian

      Reply

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